Pelagics–you can't put a price on nausea

I don’t go on many pelagic trips because I always get sick.  It’s just a matter of degree.  I ended up going on three trips this year, kind of by accident.  Two went pretty well.  The other, well…

The reasons to go are obvious–

This Black-footed Albatross was one of many seen on calm seas on 9/27/08 at Monterey Bay.  Original at Flickr.

This Flesh-footed Shearwater was another highlight.  Original at Flickr.

Just can’t get enough of these charismatic Black-footed Albatrosses
Original at Flickr.

This was on a memorable trip out of Bodega Bay on 8/12/08.  Richard Hall was visiting from England, and convinced me and a few others to go on this trip.  As it was, I saw my first Fort-tailed Storm-Petrel and Xantus’s Murrelet.  I was also sick most of the time, as it was very rough, and, at the end of the day, I didn’t make it all the way to the back of the boat in an emergency lunge at the rail, and spattered some of my fellow travelers.  I really felt like jumping overboard at that point.

Buller’s 9/27/08, Montery Bay.  Original at Flickr.

After years of avoiding pelagics, it was an odd feeling, in addition to being sick, knowing that I’d already signed up for a trip to Monterey Bay.  Fortunately, the seas were much calmer, and I didn’t throw up for just the second time when going on a pelagic trip.

Well it's about time

Where did the second half of 2008 go?  Our "birding book group" at Sacramento Audubon finished up Birding in the Sacramento Region.  Somehow I ended up as the editor.  At 172 pages, with over 100 sites, it took on a life of its own.  I think it turned out well, and I’m very glad it is finished.  I thought that once it was out of the way I’d have a lot more free time, but things kept stacking up just the same.

I think a lot of my blogging energy was diverted into my Flickr photo site and obsessing about the Presidential race (thrilled at the outcome; cautiously optimistic about the future, with many lingering worries and disappointments–especially Prop 8).


The best find for me was a pair of Least Terns (original at Flickr) at the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant (which is surrounded by the Bufferlands) on 6/27/08, and they continued until 8/5/08.  This was a first for Sacramento County, and about 55 people were able to see them.  Two eggs were laid, but sadly they never hatched.  Perhaps this normally coastal nesting bird (at least in California) had its eggs cooked when there was a stretch of temps over 110 F.  Even though it would have been incredible for them to successfully nest, it was really cool that they even tried.  The normally colonial species looked really vulnerable nesting in the middle of the gravel road (which we closed while they were nesting).  By the end of July, a group of gulls gathered nearby, and the tiny terns spent a lot of time diving on them.

I received a call on 7/10/08 from Ann Pellegrini or Mary Schiedt that this Brown Thrasher (original at Flickr) had been caught by Stan Wright’s mist netting team on Stone Lakes NWR.  I was only a couple of miles away, so I was able to see and photograph this bird.  I was also able to go back in the morning with a few folks.  It responded to a recording, but didn’t come back into view.  It wasn’t seen or heard after the second day.  There is one record for the county of a heard-only bird at Cosumnes, but it was nice to get a photo record.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper (original at Flickr) was at the Bufferlands on 8/2/08.

Jeri Langham found this Bay-breasted Warbler (original at Flickr) at Gristmill along the American River Parkway on 9/21/08.  Amazingly, this super-rarity for the Central Valley has been found by Jeri two years in a row at the same site.

Dan Kopp found Sacramento County’s first Palm Warbler (original at Flickr) in many years, also along the American River Parkway, on 9/23/08, and it continued for two more days.

Perhaps the animal highlight of the season for me was this bobcat (original at Flickr):

He came trotting out of the forest toward me and noticed me about 30 feet out, and we eyeballed each other for a while.  Then I remembered my camera.

Earlier I had heard odd calls emanating from the forest as well as some commotion.  I had considered cougar before I saw the bobcat.  Still not sure…  The more I think about the calls I heard, the more I think it likely that a cougar and its screaming and crashing around flushed the bobcat out to me. 

I was able to be some decent video of the bobcat.

Well, that’s all for now.  The next installment will include sickness and shame on the high seas.

All the best,



Alaska–Kenai and Barrow. Installment 4 of 4

Bald Eagles and waterfalls at Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska.

On Wednesday, June 11th, we took a full day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park with Kenai Fjords Tours.  It was another spectacular day.

The geology was very impressive.

The first of our three murrelets of the day:  Marbled Murrelets.

We saw many Horned Puffins, but

Tufted Puffins were by far the most common.Here’s a short video of (mostly) Tufted Puffins at Beehive Rock.

We also saw several Rhinoceros Auklets.

The whales put on quite a show.  I didn’t think I had any great photos of orcas, but a few looked okay as I reviewed them on the camera.  Somehow I erased them later.  I had a 2 gig compact flash card malfunction while in Denali, so I was trying to save space on my remaining cards by erasing pictures that were obviously no good, and I guess I went too far.  I also had a few photos of Ancient Murrelets that were somehow lost, so maybe it was another card malfunction rather than overzealous erasing.

The humpback whales were very close to the boat.

Look, he has a nose on his back!

Sea otters

Dall’s Porpoises rode the bow for a few minutes.  A short video here.

This black bear was eating roses.  At times, he used his tongue like a giraffe to strip them from the plant.  He must have one tough tongue not to mind the prickles on the stem.

A Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel was briefly seen, though I didn’t see it.  We did have good looks at this Leach’s Storm-Petrel on the water and in flight.

A classic storm-petrel pose and a perfect rump pattern for the species.

The same bird a few frames later shows no dark central divide in the white rump like in the picture above.

As we got closer to the Aialik Glacier, there were floating chunks of ice in the water.

Some had Black-legged Kittiwakes sitting on them.

The small chunks (under two meters in size) are known as brash ice.  This is often where Kittlitz’s Murrelets are found.

Our first view.

A second bird, looking like some biker "bat out of hell" insignia.

A third bird, showing white in the trailing edge of the secondaries.  Chris Benesh said that this is a good field mark not shown in the field guides.

This ice was a bit more than brash.

The Aialik Glacier.  Kayakers in the foreground.

We saw several small chunks calve off.

It is called a tidewater glacier, since it comes all of the way down to the ocean.

The scale is impossible to depict in a small photograph, but it was truly impressive.

Dave Johnson, who we saw in Nome and Barrow with another group, took some great shots of harbor seals on the ice.  We didn’t have views of them that were nearly as good.  While you’re there, his photo stream has many wonderful shots of Alaskan species touched on herein, as well as many other subjects.

This Black Oystercatcher allowed for a close approach by the boat on our return to the dock.

The following morning we spent some time in the spruce forest around Seward.  We found this Chestnut-backed Chickadee, along with several Townsend’s Warblers, a couple of Pine Grosbeaks, and two White-winged Crossbills that perched briefly on a distant spruce.

As we were watching the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, this Boreal Chickadee showed itself too.

Another view of Denali on our flight to Barrow on Friday, June 13.

The welcome sign on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, framed by two bowhead whale skulls.

The palms of Barrow.  These are made from bowhead whale baleen.

At the top of the list for Barrow were the Spectacled Eiders (above) and the Steller’s Eiders (below).  These can be hard to find, so we were thrilled to find them both on our first outing.  These relatively close digi-scopes of the Spectacled were from our second day in Barrow, June 14.  Short video here.

Steller’s Eiders

From field guide photos, I was led to believe that these were the lesser of the four eider species.  That is far from the truth.  I really liked their alert pose (more below on why they might want to be alert), and they are just as stunning as the King, Spectacled, and Common Eiders.

Courting Semipalmated Sandpipers

Long-tailed Ducks courting.  Short video here.

Pectoral Sandpipers stole the show.  The inflated pecs, the flight displays, the fearlessness, and calling, "doo doo doo doo doo doo."  They’re always a nice find in CA, but I’ll never think of them the same way.

On our first eve, we took a guided tour (required) out to Point Barrow.  We hoped for polar bears, and they had been seen within two days of our visit, but we didn’t see them.  These Black Guillemots were new for us, however.

The jaegers were an incredible spectacle.  In Nome it had been mostly Long-tailed Jaegers, with a few Parasitic Jaegers.  We had all three species in Barrow, but the Pomarine Jaegers were by far the most common.

Someone coined the term "Darth Jaeger" for these dark Pomarine Jaegers.  To a lemming or small bird, that is certainly how they must seem.

A light-morph Pomarine Jaeger.

A dark Parasitic Jaeger

Looking out over the ice.  There were incredible blues and oranges, and things appeared to move.  We were looking for movement (polar bears), and chunks of ice shimmered in front of use–especially through a spotting scope.  On our last evening, several of us were convinced that we saw blue tarps, or tents, or some such out on the ice.  It must have been the odd refraction of the atmosphere above the shimmering ice.  Either that, or what we began to call the "ice gypsies."

Here is some digi-scoped video of the ice.

On our last morning, I got up a couple of hours early and scoped the ice for polar bears.  Chris said that he had seen them in the past on the ice not far from the hotel.  No joy this morning.

I’m sure nobody has ever gotten the idea before to take their picture at midnight.  Even though we already knew that the sun didn’t go down, it was odd to see it.

A lemming in his ice fortress.

The ground was flooded, so he took shelter where he could from the jaegers and Snowy Owls, among others.  Chris said this was a good lemming year compared to others he had seen over the past 15 years.  We saw many running around, and two fighting–or if they weren’t fighting…

Snowy Owl

Red Phalaropes courting.

A female Red Phalarope (they are the bright ones).

The bizarre polygons of water on the tundra as seen from above (Google Earth).  Some of the water bodies are many acres in size.

We had all of our meals at Pepe’s, which was attached to the Top of the World, where we stayed.  Pepe’s had a pretty diverse selection, including Garden Burgers, and a very interesting atmosphere.

I’ve never seen a soda machine like this one at Top of the World (video)!

Convenient shopping on your court date?  Photo by Kimya.

"The place where we hunt Snowy Owls."  An odd thing to highlight, methinks.  Barrow is an odd mix.  There is much to see, and the eiders and shorebirds, ice views and tundra are beyond great.  The fact that there was trash EVERYWHERE was not too cool.  For a "dry town," there sure were a lot of beer cans as well as bottles of harder stuff.  We often found ourselves describing the location of a bird with something like, "just left of the beer can." 
Photo by Kimya

We also found a dead female Steller’s Eider (presumably shot and left) and a dead male Long-tailed Duck (confirmed to have been shot and left).  Random shooting is a big problem for birds breeding on the tundra, especially the threatened Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders, and aside for the immensity of the landscape, there is nowhere to hide.

The view of Denali from the air on our flight back to Anchorage.  We were very close, and the pilot turned the plane for optimum viewing.

On our last afternoon (and by myself in the morning–trying to tempt that charging moose or bear), a few of us walked around a nice spruce forest and bog near the hotel looking for Spruce Grouse–one hoped for species that eluded us.  There were a few singing Alder Flycatchers, but most notable were the mosquitoes.
Photo by Kimya.  Mosquitoes on David’s shoulder.

Even with Deet and my rain shell and hood, they were really bad.  I didn’t get bitten too many times, but a couple did get in my eyes and stick to my eyeball.  They weren’t too bad if you walked at a good clip, but slowing down to look for birds invited them into your face.  A mosquito net would have been welcome.  Aside from this, our last afternoon and morning in Anchorage, they were not a factor during the trip.  If it had been warmer or we had gone much later, I’m sure it would have been much worse.

A far more welcome insect in Anchorage–A four-spotted skimmer:  Alaska’s official insect.

On Monday, June 16th, we headed home.  We were in Alaska for nineteen days, though two were more or less travel days.  It was a great trip, and I’d love to go back.

Of all of the places to visit, Alaska was first on my list (Where to now?).  I had been reading about the locations we visited for a few years, so there were no big surprises.  I knew I’d be shocked by the immensity of the landscapes, the spectacular mountain range just behind another.  And I was. 

One thing that didn’t come up too much was the sense of impending doom about the environment that often hovers over my head–especially in regard to climate change.  While we were there, everything seemed so vibrant and alive, that it’s hard to imagine it being under threat.  One thing that struck me was when I noticed some Coho salmon in a creek near Seward.  There were quite a few in the water, and to me, who had never been at that location before, it was impressive.  Then Chris said that he’d never seen so few (it has been a VERY bad year for Pacific salmon).  It brings to mind the concept of the shifting baseline.  Each generation has a normalized view of what they are familiar with.  Will people be equally happy as we were when only a dozen Least Auklets show up at St. Paul?  They will still be fun to watch.  Is that any different that reading about the declines of Steller’s sea lions and Northern fur seals, but enjoying the ones that we saw.  Is that going to happen?  Will we, as a culture, let it happen?  Is there any way to stop it from happening?

As an aside–and to illustrate just how little I understand about climate change, despite reading several books on the subject in the past two to three years–there was more ice at Barrow than in a typical year and there have been recent hard winters at the Pribilofs, with ice connecting it to the mainland in winter (a rare event)–so much so that a red fox made it to St. Paul by crossing the ice.  Despite this, I’ve heard recent reports that this may be the first summer in recorded history with an ice-free Arctic Ocean.  So much for starting out the season with a surplus of ice.

It was a big decision to go with a group, as opposed to arranging the trip on our own, and something we’ve never done before (at least not on this scale).  In part, I wanted to see what a top-of-the-line guided birding tour was like.  And why not now, when we can afford it?  Nothing is getting any cheaper.  Also, I didn’t have time to plan for the trip this year (we made arrangements in the fall of 2007), and I didn’t want to put it off any longer.  My grandfather always wanted to visit Alaska.  He finally did, but only after he’d had a couple of small strokes and could not fully enjoy it.

I think we did remarkably well at finding target species, and I ended up with 28 lifers (4 or 5 more than I figured I’d see) despite not seeing a single vagrant at St. Paul. 

It has taken me over a month to get through all of the pictures and prepare a narrative for the trip–two to three times longer than I thought I’d take.  Now I need to dig back into a couple of volunteer projects and get them done this summer, or I’ll just need to change my name and go into hiding. 

What else can I say?  In some senses, the trip already seems like an eternity ago.  I always have the feeling before a big trip that it is a life-changing event, which takes on life and death significance.  But then we get back, go to work, have a lot to catch up on, and you wonder:  did you even really go?  But it is a lot of fun to relive it through the pictures, and writing the blog, if nothing else, facilitates that.  Now I only have four more days worth of checklists to enter into eBird, and I’ll be caught up!

Well, that’s the fourth and final installment on Alaska 2008.

Installment one.
Installment two.
Installment three.

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Alaska–Nome and the road to Seward. Installment 3 of 4

We arrived in Nome on Saturday, June 7th.  Our flight (half cargo, half passengers) made a brief stop above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue.   We then flew just south of the Circle to Nome, on the Norton Sound.  Just outside of the Aurora Inn, we had a few new birds–some flyby Common Eiders, a flyover Aleutian Tern, and, very unusual for this location, two flyby Double-crested Cormorants.
An Aleutian Tern

among the ubiquitous Arctic Terns.

We’re happy to find one first cycle Glaucous Gull in CA.  Here in Nome, they are the common landfill gull.  We did have one Slaty-backed Gull there too (not pictured).

A typical Nome scene.  When I posted this to my photo stream at Flickr, I received two replies from people who have taken "the same" shot in Nome.

A few beach houses.

Gold mining on the beach.

Apparently Fat Freddie’s was a legendary restaurant (I’ll leave that to your imagination), but we did not get to take part, since it had gone out of business this year.

Our first afternoon, we drove along the Council Road.  For me, the number one target was Arctic Loon.  We had very distant views of one bird.  The two Arctic Loons above were seen on our third day.

It began snowing quite heavily, and was very hard to bird outside of the vehicle or see through the windows.  We tried cracking the windows, but then it snowed in the van.  Here’s a short video of us looking at the Arctic Loon in the snow.

Male and female Common Eiders.

Long-tailed Jaeger

Day two on the Kougarok Road:  after a night of fairly heavy snow, we were a bit worried that we wouldn’t be able to get to mile 72 (the Bristle-thighed Curlew spot).  As it turned out, the road was fine and the scenes were gorgeous!

Not far from town along the Kougarok, we saw this wonderful muskox.  Seeing this species was way up on my list!

This interesting animal is more closely related to goats than to bison, which one might think they resemble.

In the afternoon, this larger heard was seen above Kougarok Road.

We saw many, but never tired of Long-tailed Jaegers.

We heard many Arctic Warblers, and were able to get good views of this one.  Another, more distant, was a cooperative singer.

We saw several American Golden-Plovers
and Pacific Golden-Plovers.

We had wonderful scope views of Bluethroats.  Chris Benesh was able to record a great song sequence.  Unfortunately, I was never about to get a really sharp digi-scope of this gorgeous bird.

We saw a total of six Bluethroats.  Here are two short segments of one singing:  1 and 2.

(To paraphrase Pasteur), chance favors the prepared mind: 
I never can seem to find the time to hit the books as hard as I would like before a trip, but here is a time when what little I did was rewarded.  I had noted the tail pattern of Northern Wheatear, so when I saw the flash of a white rump and a black tail tip, we were able to stop and get good scope views of a pair, plus another male up the hill.  These were the only wheatears of the trip, though, no doubt, we would have looked harder if we hadn’t have seen them here.

We saw Eastern Yellow Wagtails near the coast as well as inland.  This was the best photo I could manage.

This Grizzly sow and two cubs were fun to watch.  We stopped and scoped them, staying close to the van.  As the cubs played on the snow patch, I saw the sow vigorously sniffing the air (obviously smelling us).  Here’s a short video of her walking out of view.

The sun came out in the afternoon, fully showing off the beauty of the country.  The snowy, misty morning was beautiful too, in a different way.

One of many Arctic ground squirrels.

An Arctic (or tundra) hare.

For many, the Bristle-thighed Curlew is THE bird of Nome.  For me, I think the Bluethroat edged it out a bit (since I have a slight songbird bias, but shorebirds are right up there with my favorites too).

After we had some great views, it began to snow.  This is my favorite shot of the bird.

In this awkward pose, the Bristle-thighed Curlew shows off its diagnostic tail pattern.  Through the scope, we could also see its bristles!

There were many Whimbrels in the area too, but the pressure was off early when we heard the distinctive call of a Bristle-thighed Curlew.  We found this one about 0.4 mile from the road.

The squishy tundra contained some reindeer moss (really a lichen).

After a very long and successful day on the Kougarok Road, the next day was bound to be a bit anticlimactic.  We had a short tour of the Council Road again, with good views of Arctic Loons (above) and Common Eiders, among others.  We also had a very distant Emperor Goose. 

These Harlequin Ducks were along the Teller Road.

After breakfast on our last morning in Nome, we were standing near the vans and I heard an unfamiliar call, looked up and saw the distinctive silhouette of a wagtail.  There were several of us, and I said, "wagtail," and casually put my bins on it, expecting a Yellow Wagtail.  This bird had a black bib and was white below.  From the side I could see that it had a dark tail with white outer tail feathers.  I yelled, "White Wagtail."  I think David was the only other person to get bins on the bird.  It flew over a building and appeared that it might be descending to the rocky breakwater.  We ran over there, but were unable to find it.  We did, however, see a dead beluga–interesting, but a bit gruesome.

The brief look of the wagtail was good enough to place it on my life list, though certainly a better view (and a view for everyone else) would have made it much more satisfying.  The two-note "zip zip" that I heard was also perfect for White Wagtail.  We would later see another new bird:  a Red-necked Stint.  It was more distant than I would have liked and moving away by the time I got on it.  If I had to choose, I’d like more time with the stint than the wagtail, since in the brief view of the wagtail, it was obvious what it was.

The view from the plane between Nome and Anchorage.

From Anchorage, we made a brief stop at Westchester Lagoon and a few additional stops on our way to Seward.
Arctic Terns at Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage.

Mew Gulls and chicks, plus a Red-necked Grebe on a nest.

A Mew Gull chick flapping.

My proudest moment as a digi-vidi-scopographer came when I caught these Red-necked Grebes in full display.

After the morning stop at Westchester Lagoon, we made our way south toward Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park.

This male American Three-toed Woodpecker was a very welcome find.

Of all the places we visited on this trip (many wonderful places), Nome was my favorite.  I would like to go back and spend a week, possibly coupling that with a trip to Gambell (I did a Google search to find a link for Gambell, and found this great write-up of the kind of trip I’d like to take (minus the whale meat) by Roger Wolfe). 

One of the great things about Nome is that it has three very different roads heading out of town.  The Teller Road and the Kougarok Road both have a very wild feel.  Nome serves as a convenient base, with real wilderness that is relatively easy to explore close at hand.  Some might quibble that you only get real wilderness if you travel by plane to the north of the Brooks Range, get dropped off for a month, and possibly starve to death or get eaten by a bear.  But, really, you could get eaten near Nome (and you are unlikely to starve, but your cholesterol could shoot up by 50 points on the available food–let’s just say I ate a lot more eggs and cheese than I usually do).  There are incredible animals like muskox, grizzly bears, (wolverines have been seen), not to mention Bluethoat, Bristle-thighed Curlew, etc.

The next (fourth and final) installment will be on the Kenai Fjords, Seward, and Barrow.

The first installment:  Saint Paul Island.
The second installment:  Denali

High resolution versions of my photos (mostly those above, with a few additional) of Alaska 2008.

Alaska–Denali. Installment 2 of 4

A view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) from the park road on our shuttle bus ride.  The rain and overcast of the previous day lifted!

A telephoto view.

Our visit to St. Paul went off nearly without a hitch.  We learned of the one hitch as we were getting on the plane in St. Paul to fly back to Anchorage.  We were told that 575 pounds of luggage needed to be held back because of weight restrictions.  Needless to say, we were concerned that we wouldn’t have any clothes to wear, etc.  It turned out that everyone from our group got their suitcases, but boxes which contained our tripods, rubber boots, and a few other items were held back.  We weren’t to see them for two days.

Initially, we thought we might get our tripods and other stuff around noon the following day, so we stayed close to Anchorage during the morning of Tuesday, 6/3/08.  This altered the plan to take a slow drive to Denali National Park, birding along the way.  It turned out that we didn’t get our stuff until Wednesday eve, near Denali.  Chris and Jesse purchased a few tripods to get us by in the meantime.  We visited Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage and saw some distant Hudsonian Godwits, and great closeups of Red-necked Grebes.  On the drive to Denali, it rained quite a bit, so maybe we didn’t miss too much.

Just another beautiful Red-necked Grebe.  They were very common around Anchorage.

This moose broke up the long drive to Denali.

On Wednesday, 6/4/08, we rode the shuttle bus to the end of the road.  It took all day, and we had a wonderful driver, Wendy, who was especially good at spotting mammals.  Despite the Disneyland aspect of taking a shuttle bus into the park, it was a very memorable day.

Just a few miles into the shuttle bus drive, I saw this Northern Hawk-Owl perched right along the side of the road.  The bus stopped for wildlife, and we became proficient at yelling "STOP!"

On our return, several folks in the group stopped near the hawk-owl site.  We never got as close, but there must have been a nest in the area.  We saw a food exchange between the pair.

Flying with a bloodied rodent.

No tripod…improvise.  Gary borrowed the work crew’s stop sign for stability.  The owls were seemingly unconcerned by the roadwork nearby.

Just last night, I got to look at Gary Lindquist’s photos.  They’re spectacular and I wish mine were as good!.  He takes his photography seriously!

This male Willow Ptarmigan was calling from the middle of the road.

The two ptarmigans were high on my list of desired species, so I was very happy to see this Rock Ptarmigan–a little farther off of the road.

Caribou was another species I really hoped to see.  These large deer are incredibly charming.  There is no sense of fear in their eyes, like you see with even the most tame mule deer.  Of course, they were in the Park–more to fear from wolves and grizzlies than people at this location.

The hair-like velvet on their antlers was interesting to see at close range.

A red fox.  In this color morph they are known as "cross foxes."  We had great views from the bus of this fox stashing prey (probably Arctic ground squirrels) by digging holes and burying them.

The following morning we saw another color morph:  a silver fox.

This grizzly bear, another life mammal, was grazing almost frantically–trying to fatten up after a long winter.  It was odd to see this bear posing like a cartoon circus bear balancing on a stool.

The views were incredible, as you might expect.  Even on the drive north from Anchorage, it was as if there was a set of incredible mountains to rival the Grand Tetons, and just behind them, another amazing, yet almost overlooked, range of mountains.

Throughout the day, it began to get more cloudy.  This is the classic view of Denali that you see in all of the postcards, but it is now behind the clouds!

We had about three miles to walk back along the road from where we got off of the bus to see the hawk-owls.  On the way, we passed this spruce with multiple burls.

Birding the spruce forests is very different than forest birding in California.  The birds are few and far between.  As often as not, they are Myrtle Warblers, but there were a few we were really looking for–and we found most of them in the next two days.  Other birds we saw on the bus ride included Northern Shrike, great views of Long-tailed Jaegers on nests (this was great, but the jaeger show in Nome and Barrow was even more impressive), and nice scope views of a Gyrfalcon.

On Thursday, 6/5/08, we drove the amazing Denali Highway.  It may not be quite as scenic as Denali NP, but the lack of people makes it, in most ways, more enjoyable (highway is a misnomer, at least by Lower 48 standards–the Denali Highway is a gravel road).  Some folks skip Denali NP altogether, but I’m glad we didn’t.  The large mammals make it worthwhile…and then some.

We heard many Blackpoll Warblers, and had a few good looks.  We usually see one to a few of this species in the fall, especially along the coast, but I’d never seen a male in breeding plumage (with a black poll) or heard one sing before.

The shorebirds here don’t act the way they do at home.  Lesser Yellowlegs were seen many times sitting on top of trees and calling ("weedity, weedity, weedity").

White-winged Scoters are a treat off of the CA coast (and much more rare than they used to be), so it was great getting good looks on their breeding grounds.  The male’s brown sides are typical of North American breeders.  In Nome, we looked (well, not too hard, there was SO MUCH else to see) for the black-sided Asian race.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans.
Video of calling birds here.  And looking graceful here.

Not your typical deer tracks (moose). 

I read several warnings in the park and in books and pamphlets about what to do in case an animal charges.  If it’s a grizzly bear, hold your ground.  They’re most likely bluffing.  If it’s a moose, get out of the way.  They don’t bluff.  The second half, "you can’t outrun a moose," didn’t seem to offer too much hope of getting out of the way.

A Boreal Chickadee.

Gray Jay.  It could be called the "Chickadee Jay."

A juvenile Gray Jay.

An American Dipper with food.

Bohemian Waxwing.  One of a number of species on this trip that we had only seen once before.

A pair of Harlequin Ducks.

Video of a singing Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Woolly lousewort was one of the most conspicuous flowers.

Great views from the highway.

After dinner on the evening of our Denali Highway day, I went for a walk until about 11:30 pm.  Even though it was light, with sun still on the tops of the hills, the birds, except for a few Hermit Thrushes, were pretty quiet.

The following day, the end of part one of our tour, we drove back to Anchorage–making many stops along the way.  We made a great stop at the Chulitna Wayside along the Parks Highway.

Common Redpoll

Male Pine Grosbeak.

Female Pine Grosbeak

American Three-toed Woodpecker!  This species was the last of the North American woodpeckers for me (except Ivory-billed!).  Kimya and I have looked for this one several times within their range.  Near Seward, we were to get even better looks at a male, but I was very happy at this point with this bird.

The wayside (like a rest area/small park) had a lot of activity, and just when we thought we were finished, another interesting bird would pop up.

As we were getting ready to leave, someone spotted this porcupine.

Red squirrels were common in here.

At a Denali view point (great views, but didn’t photograph as well as two days earlier–more clouds), we saw this singing Alder Flycatcher.

At another brief stop, we had our best look at a Hudsonian Godwit.

We had a farewell/welcome dinner in Anchorage on Friday evening.  Four people left the tour, and three joined us.  It was a good group, and our guides, Chris Benesh, who has been doing this tour since 1992, and Jesse Fagan, were a lot of fun to bird with.

I just got the chance to look at the video CD of the trip that Jesse sent.  It is really great.

This was the first professional birding tour that I have been on.  You don’t have the freedom you have when you’re on your own, but Chris’s long-term experience with the birds and other aspects of the environment and human history added a lot to the trip.  It was also fun to see new birds with people who were also very excited about them.  After the first week, it was a pretty tight group.  I was sorry to see a few people leave, though the new folks were great to travel with as well.  The only thing that really got old was clambering in and out of the vans, with camera(s), bins, scope, lots of clothes.  That, and I probably doubled the amount of flying I’ve done in my life, so it has been nice to have a couple of weeks away from airports.

To see Installment I, St. Paul Island, click here.

The other two installments will follow, I hope, in quicker succession.

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Alaska–St. Paul. Installment 1 of 4

We’ve been home for a week from our Alaskan "trip of a lifetime."  It’s funny how you anticipate something for a year, and then it’s over and life goes on, more or less the same.  I’ve been going through ~3,000 photos and it’s fun to relive the trip, remembering different scenarios, the weather, the birds, the mammals, the amazing scenery.  And very few mosquitoes.  Going in late May and the first half of June (along with colder than normal weather) gave us a nice break from what could have been.  I’ll take the cold over the mosquitoes.

It was a wonderful trip, stretching from May 29 to June 16, 2008.  The first and last days were travel days, though we got a little birding in on them too.  In the next week or two, I plan to include highlights on Denali and environs, Nome, Kenai Fjords National Park, and Barrow.

This Google Earth capture gives an idea of where we visited.  The tip of the pin indicates the location.

The three auks:  Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets.  As much as anything, the allure of these species got the ball rolling for this trip.

Our first night in Anchorage was on May 29, 2008.  The views on the flight in and those around the hotel near the airport were incredible, with national park caliber mountains surrounding the city.  Despite a problem with our connection in Seattle, and spending 6+ hours there, we arrived in time to meet our group from Field Guides (a little late) for dinner.  Seeing a Short-eared Owl out of the window of the plane on touchdown was a welcome sight.

We flew out to St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs on the morning of May 30th.  Flying a prop plane over the Bering Sea was quite an experience.  Even before we reached the sea, I was struck by the incredible views out of the window.  The kettle lakes were especially striking.

The common birds away from the coast on St. Paul are
Lapland Longspur (stretching),

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch,

and Rock Sandpiper.  That is all. 

Any other songbird is of interest.  Rock Sandpipers are everywhere.  Sure, they’re on the rocks, but also on the snow, in the grass, in trash piles, nearly underfoot.  I’ve seen them on several occasions on the California coast (different subspecies), but to see dozens of them each day, doing fluttering display flights and calling a frog-like "gree, gree, gree…"  Here’s a short video of one bathing.

The Lapland Longspurs were great too, flying up and fluttering down, with meadowlark-like songs.  The large Pribilofs Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches aren’t as musical, but they make up for it with their looks.

When we arrived in St. Paul, it was very windy and in the upper 30s.  It rained some on our first afternoon, but was otherwise relatively dry.  Rain coats and pants helped a lot with the wind, however.

The transportation and local knowledge of which birds were around was supplied by St. Paul Island Tours.  For the most part, any visit to the island will need to go through them.  We were met off of the plane by Dylan Radin, formerly (?) of Davis, CA.  It was odd to roll the luggage off of the plane and straight to our rooms at the "Airport Hotel."

Our first life birds were these Bar-tailed Godwits (male on left:  brighter and shorter-billed) at Salt Lagoon.  There were five on the first two days of our stay, and six on the last two days.  This species has perhaps the most amazing fall migration of any bird, with some flying nonstop from Alaska to their wintering grounds in New Zealand.

This female Tufted Duck was hanging out with a female Greater Scaup.

Beautiful Long-tailed Ducks were abundant, as were Harlequin Ducks.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any good shots of Red-faced Cormorants, though you can see them quite a bit better here.

I was overwhelmed by the novelty, and "forgot" to get good pictures of the Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes either.

Despite not being able to see its legs, this is a Red-legged Kittiwake.  They have a darker mantle and upper surface to the wings.  Also, on Black-legged, the bases of the primaries are paler than the rest of the upper wing and back, so there is a pale gap between the medium gray back and the black of the wing tips.

We had our first introduction to the birds on the breeding cliffs on our first day, but it was on the next morning that we really got to spend time with the Parakeet Auklets

as they fought for the best spot on the ledge.

A little video here.

The Crested Auklets were the least common and most unusual of the three little auks.

But the sparrow-sized Least Auklets ("choochkies") may be my favorites.

There was a steady stream of them past the cliffs.

Both Common and Thick-billed Murres (right) were present in good numbers.  The Thick-billed is blacker above, with a thicker bill (imagine that) with a conspicuous white line, and a white point on the neck.

We had more views of puffins in flight than on the cliffs.

Tufted Puffin

Horned Puffin

Glaucous Gull

The Pribiliofs are a vital breeding ground for Northern Fur Seals.  Their numbers have dropped steadily despite an end to the commercial harvest.

As it was early in the season, the females had yet to arrive, but large males, or beach masters, were setting up territories.

Much of the time they occupied their territory by sleeping,

looking sleepy,

or occasionally looking and sounding fierce.

Also present were a few Steller’s sea lions.  This is a species that has undergone even more dramatic declines than the fur seals.

One of the highlights was seeing the Arctic foxes.

A little video here.

This fox was more of a blue-gray.  Some were browner and one (observed catching a Parakeet Auklet) was white.

This male King Eider posed for us several times on Salt Lagoon.

In addition to the breeding birds and regular migrants, St. Paul is known to attract a few Asian vagrants each spring.  We’d hope to run into one or more of these, but the winds were coming from the east instead of the west.  When I asked Dylan, shortly into our first outing, if there were any vagrants around, he said, "You just saw it."  He was referring to the Tufted Duck.  The vagrant songbirds we had were a singing Golden-crowned Sparrow and a Wilson’s Warbler (wind from the east).

Slaty-backed Gull.  This 2nd-summer bird was completely washed out except for the mantle.  I’m not used to these heavily worn summer gulls.  Many of the immature Glaucous-winged Gulls on St. Paul were completely white.  Another Slaty-backed 2nd-summer we saw in Nome was more typical.

It was nice to see these sharp-looking female Red-necked Phalaropes at close range.

With her duller mate (reverse sexual dimorphism).

At a quarry site, there were many singing Snow Buntings among the rocks.  It was great watching them sing and flutter down with spread wings and tail.

We had brief view of a possible female McKay’s Bunting, but couldn’t refind it for better looks.

The quarry was also the site where there were at least two Winter Wrens hanging on after a couple of harsh winters.  This is one of very few resident species on the island.  A couple videos of one singing.

St. Paul Village

Russian church

Island scenes:

Otter Island off shore in the upper right.

Here is video of grooming Norther Fulmars and of the Ridge Wall seabird cliffs.

Check back for updates.  The next will be on Denali and Denali Highway.  Depending on my mood at the time of writing, there may even be musings on Alaska as it relates to the meaning of life.


Okay, here is Installment 2, Denali.

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A couple of nice finds

This Lark Bunting was a nice surprise while I was doing Tricolored Blackbird surveys to the east of Oakdale in Stanislaus County.  This bird was at a small dairy at the corner of Crabtree and Warnerville Rds on 4/24 and 4/25/08.  It was also reported the following day.

This was my first view of the bird.

Jeri Langham found this spectacular Hooded Warbler on 5/16/08 at the Gristmill access of the American River Parkway–just a mile from our house.  Kimya and I were lucky to see it in the afternoon after work.  This is one of a handful of records for this species in Sacramento County.
This photo wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-digital era–at least not without a flash.  It was in deep shade and I took this at 1600 ISO at only 1/60 of a second–believe me, most of the photos were blurry.

Though he looks like he is singing, he is actually panting.  It was 100 degrees.  I’ve posted some video of the bird actually singing here.

Amazingly, Jeri predicted that this area was due for a Hooded Warbler just a week before he found it.

A nearby House Wren going to its nest hole.

Dan Airola alerted me to a photo op of Purple Martins sitting close to the Sutterville overpass near Sacramento City College.

This large family of Bushtits was fun to see at the Bufferlands.

This Sinuous Snaketail was near our home along the American River.

This Pacific Clubtail was at the Bufferlands.

Tim Manolis led a Dragonfly (and damselfly) walk across the river from Gristmill near Rio Americano High School where there are nice backwater ponds.  This Exclamation Damsel was one of many on a very cold and drizzly day (5/24/08!).  Note the blue exclamation marks on its thorax.

To see some real photos of these creatures, check out Ray Bruun’s site.

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Mosquito Weekend

On the weekend of 4/19/08, Kimya and I spent a couple of days with our friends Frank and Katharine around their place in Mosquito.  To call Mosquito a town would be an overstatement.  It is more of an accumulation of homes on the next ridge north of Placerville.  The approach is slow and winding, but very scenic.  Frank has seen a cougar and ringtails on his drive home!  Depending on elevation and aspect, there is a range from foothill vegetation to coniferous forest.

We turned over some logs and bricks in their yard and found this attractive ensatina.

As well as this ground beetle.

Frank is braver than I am–allowing this scorpion to pose for a photo on his finger.

As well as this centipede.

I noticed this deer tick on my pants.  This is the type of tick that can transmit Lyme Disease.  The ticks where we live in the Sac Valley are larger and do not carry Lyme, but deer ticks occur on both sides of the valley and along the coast.

They had about a dozen Band-tailed Pigeons in their yard.  The pigeons were very skittish, and flew every time we moved about the yard.

This Red-breasted Nuthatch was excavating a nest hole.

We spotted this Merlin near a small pond.  After decent scope views, we watched it fly over and begin diving on this plastic owl in a private backyard.

As we walked through some nice mixed coniferous forest, the number of Nashville and Black-throated Gray Warblers was astounding.  We also heard calling Pileated Woodpeckers and saw a single Lewis’s Woodpecker in the lower elevation oak woodlands.  A Great-tailed Grackle was also a bit of a surprise at one of the community’s small ponds.

A half-year's worth of eBird

Western Screech-Owl sleeping in one of Jeri Langham’s nest boxes on 3/1/08.

Since last October, I’ve been entering an eBird checklist everyday.  eBird is an online checklist program that stores data where it can be accessed by North American Birds editors, scientists studying climate change, or folks just interested in where a particular species is being recorded.  I have a personal goal of entering an eBird checklist every day (one day I had to resort to birds seen at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport:  starlings, pigeons and a Red-tailed Hawk).  Once you get in the habit, it takes less than ten minutes to enter a checklist (a broadband connection helps!).  It’s kind of like the Great Backyard Bird Count–just every day.

A nice arrangement of Mourning Doves behind Jeri’s house.

One concern that is often expressed is about the quality of the data.  Remember the acronym that never seems to come up anymore (though it probably should):  "GIGO"–garbage in, garbage out?  There are people entering their data into eBird ranging from ornithologists and top-notch birders to first-time feeder watchers–and everyone in between.  To address that, many counties now have a county-level filter in place which flags reports that are outside the norm (either by range, season, or numbers).  Locally, there are good filters in place for Yolo and Sacramento (maybe some others).  There are also regional filters, but these are less precise.  The counties with filters also produce a seasonally appropriate (by month) checklist for your data entry (click "rare species" if a species you saw doesn’t show up).  If you report something out of season, out of range, or a high number of a given species, the system with prompt you with an "are you sure" message.  These flagged data are also separated from the main database until they are reviewed by county or regional reviewers.  Regardless of the review, all data are permanently archived unless deleted by the person who entered the observation (each individual has control of his/her eBird list).  The county or regional reviewers can contact the observer submitting the report by e-mail for more information.  As each county gets a filter, the older data can be run though the filter to fine-tune the database.

Hunting White-tailed Kite interrupted by Kimya and me along the American River Parkway on 3/1/08.

The data amassed with even the current level of participation is really impressive.  The eBird managers have been trying to make these data useful for North American Birds editors by sending the seasonal reports to them.  Just for Sacramento County, there were 7,693 individual bird records for the winter period (Dec-Feb) for North American Birds.

Rough-legged Hawk at Cosumnes River Preserve (Valensin Ranch) on 2/3/08 during a Long-billed Curlew survey.

Depending on your time and how you are birding an area, you can enter time and distance traveled info (like a CBC).  You can enter total numbers for each species, mark an "x" just to indicate presence, or do a mix of both on one checklist.  The more you enter, the more useful the data will be in the future, but just having a date, a species, and a location can be useful data.  There is a lot of information on the site on various aspects of data collection and recording.

Golden Eagle on Lynch Canyon tour on 3/22/08.

Western fence lizard at Lynch Canyon.  Doing push-ups and showing off his "dewlap."

For county and state listers, eBird gives you a breakdown of all of your observations by county.  You can also see your species list for a given location.  For a given species, you can see every time you’ve ever recorded it, every time for a given location, county, or state. 

Lark Sparrow at Table Mountain on 3/16/08.  The flower show was down this year–it was one of the driest springs on record.  This is a wonderful site we try to visit every year.  Here’s a link to last year’s visit (scroll past the Merlin, etc.).

With eBird, your data are in a permanent archive, so if your files burn up or you pour coffee on your computer, all won’t be lost!  Imagine all of the thousands of lifetimes’ worth of files or old floppy disks that have been tossed into dumpsters by family members who didn’t realize their value when birders have passed away.  To steal an idea from Ed Pandolfino’s talk at the Central Valley Birding Symposium, we can achieve immortality through our eBird data!

Burrowing Owl in Natomas (north Sacramento) on 3/27/08.

I was doing a raptor survey there, and this guy was on the levee right outside my vehicle window.

Canada Goose in the Campus Commons neighborhood near Sacramento State.  Pretty light on this pretty-but-almost-so-common-as-to-be-mundane species.  A Hermit Warbler was a real surprise this day (3/29/08).  It must have been wintering in the nice conifers in the area.  Either that, or it was a very early migrant.

Dunlins at the Bufferlands on 4/2/08.

More later.  I’ve uploaded some new photos (and one video) here.

Salton Sea and AZ

On 2/13/08 I headed down to Brawley for the Burrowing Owl Consortium meeting.  There were a number of great talks, and I’ve included a synopsis at the end of this entry of what I found most interesting.

On the morning of 2/14, I spent an hour at Cattle Call Park before the meeting began.  This Red-naped Sapsucker was partial to a small eucalyptus.

I was happy to find the reported Gray Flycatcher.

This calling Mourning Dove (note "inflated" neck) was interesting:  a fair amount of iridescence on its neck and the odd sharp transition of the head and neck color with the rest of the body.

And the now-ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Northern Mockingbirds were so numerous…

they were trash birds.

On Saturday morning, 2/16/08, I joined the LeConte’s Thrasher/Algodones Dunes tour.  It was a beautiful morning, somewhat marred by the noise of the ATVs on the south side of Hwy 78.  We had nice, but somewhat distant, scope views of the thrasher singing and a five-mile walk through the dunes.

Desert primrose.

These darkling beetles were abundant.  I’d like to go back just to photograph the cool patterns that their tracks make in the dunes.

An interesting moth.

The Burrowing Owl Consortium meeting was part of the Salton Sea International Birding Festival.  There were a couple of excellent but depressing talks on the Salton Sea.  Long story short:  there will be less water going into the sea since there will be less water from the Colorado River for agriculture.  If the sea’s level drops, it will become more concentrated with salt and other constituents, and eventually become a dead sea.  There’s a $8+ billion plan to save part of the sea, but it has yet to be funded.

In the evening I was able to find the Neotropic Cormorant at Fig Lagoon–on the second try.  I managed a few poor digiscopes.

Guy McCaskie drove up and told me he had just seen the Tropical Kingbird at the Rio Bend RV Park/Golf Course.  With a little light left, I was able to find it.

Reports of a Crescent-chested Warbler (and recent reports of Aztec Thrush and Eared Quetzal) in Madera Canyon were too much to pass up–only another five hours. 

I arrived at the upper parking area at Madera at 0615 on Sunday, with a Northern Pygmy-Owl calling.  The trail was treacherous, with a slick icy middle and up to 10" of snow from two days earlier.  The warbler wasn’t seen again after the snow.  In fact, there were hardly any birds active in the upper canyon.

I was amazed to see three mountain spiny lizards out sunning on a rock surrounded by snow.  It was still cool when they were out around 1130.

Down at Santa Rita Lodge, this Arizona Woodpecker was caching seeds from the feeder. 

 Farther down the canyon was this cooperative Townsend’s Warbler.

As well as this gorgeous Painted Redstart.


I arrived in time to see the Northern Jacana at Casa Grande, AZ.

What a neat bird.  It flew twice, showing its bright yellow underwings.  It held its wings up for a few seconds before folding them.

Here it is with a Sonora mud turtle.

The ag lands south of Casa Grande reminded me a bit of the Imperial Valley, and, sure enough, I even saw a Burrowing Owl along with many round-tailed ground squirrels.  There was also a lot of new development threatening the ag lands.


From the Burrowing Owl Consortium meeting: of particular interest to me were the talks by Geoff Holroyd, Dave McDonald, and Courtney Conway.  They built upon each other, and led to some very interesting conclusions (I apologize for over generalizing some of this material):

To paraphrase the most direct statement:  there are no Burrowing Owl populations–the Western Burrowing Owl, from Canada to Mexico, California to the Dakotas, is ONE population.  Various genetic markers show that there is continual gene flow between these populations.  Adjacent local "populations" are no more closely related to one another than owls sampled thousands of miles away from one another.  On a genetic tree, there is no geographical pattern, as one might expect.  All Western Burrowing Owls sampled are quite closely related.  If I’m remembering this one example correctly, samples from Lemoore, CA showed a closer affinity to birds from Colorado than they did from those sampled at Carrizo Plain, CA.  By contrast, the Florida Burrowing Owl is quite genetically distinct from the Western Burrowing Owl, as would be suspected.
This all stems from the fact that Western BUOWs move around a lot.  Birds may be "resident" one year and migratory the next.  As might be expected, younger birds are more likely to disperse than older birds.  Larger males are more likely to be resident than smaller males.  In one study, a bird that was a migrant in one year has a 50% likelihood of being a resident the next year.  A bird that is a resident one year has a 69% likelihood of being a resident the next (but a 31% likelihood of migrating).
Populations have been tracked by banding (still fairly low numbers), some radio telemetry, and with over 6,000 feather samples.  Stable isotope analysis of feather samples shows where the bird was when it was growing the sampled feather (for basic info on stable isotope analysis, check
One interesting example of how much these birds move around:  a banded female was observed with young and a mate on 4/30 in Arizona.  The same female was found that same year with 7 young and a mate (I assume a different one) on 7/12 in Canada!!!
So, what does all this mean?  Well, everyone agreed that the population has been declining.  This is based on reduction of habitat quality.  However, instead of thinking of this as the extirpation of local populations, as many of us have (at least in part), it is rather a contraction of formerly occupied areas within the larger Western BUOW population. 
I’m not sure I don’t still believe that there are some especially isolated areas where birds are holding on (think sites in the Bay Area) that, once the birds breeding there decline to an unsustainable level, it is unlikely for new birds to come in to replace them.  I’m not sure how BUOWs find new sites, but they often turn up in odd places.  Apparently suitable habitat is often unoccupied while drain pipes made available for a couple of days will attract an owl.  It would be interesting to know how "random" these events are and how much scouting for new sites the owls are actually doing.  When they are excluded from a burrow, for example, where do they go? 
Below are some more interesting concepts, added mostly without comment from me:
Populations trends appear to show that Canada is losing some of its owls to the U.S.  The birds are staying in the U.S.  Site fidelity in Canada is low.
The Imperial Valley, CA and Sinaloa, Mexico pops appear to have grown where nearly all others areas have declined.
The overall range has contracted especially in the north (Canada) and the east (Dakotas, Texas, etc.).
Declines largest where owls are most strongly migratory.  Pop trend generally south and west to heavy ag areas like Imperial Valley.
Canada pop has experienced a 22% decline each year in recent years, leading to an overall 95% decline.
Some birds that migrated south to Mexico were found under vegetation and not in burrows–some in heavily vegetated areas.
The reason owls line burrow entries and nest chambers with manure may be to attract insects, making feeding easier.
Human disturbance is probably attractive to owls.  Levees, development attracts them until greater than half the land is built up–then numbers begin to drop. 
2006-2007 Statewide survey:  the official results will come out soon, but I wrote these down as fast as I could (so there may be an error or two).
1993 population estimate was 9266 breeding pairs.
2007 estimate is 8465 pairs in areas surveyed in 91-93, plus additional, previously unsampled portions of the state, leading to an overall population estimate of 9236 breeding pairs.
Many areas had owls in 91-93, with none or far fewer in 2006-2007.  Especially true at more urban sites. 
Main portion of population in Imperial Valley:  6400 pairs is the current estimate (521 were actually detected).  ~6600 in 93.
Coachella Valley (0 in 93; 53 pairs in 06-07).

No owls were found at the Modoc Plateau, an area that hadn’t been covered in 91-93.  Good numbers were found in the Palo Verde Valley near Blythe–another area not covered in 91-93.

The other stronghold is in the southern Central Valley: ~1100 pairs (~1400 in 93).

I wrote down a lot of the pair estimates for the regions, but probably should wait for the official survey results before promulgating them.

5 km X 5 km blocks were surveyed.  These included blocks with previous owls records ("owl blocks") and random blocks.  Estimates were based on a formula using owls found on randomly selected blocks (# of owls found in "owl blocks" and other sites discovered incidentally were simply added to the totals that were estimated using the random blocks).  This was covered quickly, but I’m sure there will be more details on the methods in the upcoming report. 
A couple notes on artificial burrows.  There was a talk from Bob Fox from Wild at Heart of Arizona.  They have done a lot of artificial burrow construction and have relocated owls to artificial burrows.  Owls are kept at least 60 days (maybe it was 90?) and fed mice.  Obviously very labor intensive.  Not currently an option in CA.
They have also had many owls move into their sites.  They build hundreds of burrows to give the owls a lot of options.  In a conversation with them afterwards, they felt that our Bufferlands nest chambers weren’t buried deeply enough (which could explain why the owls have been using them more in the winter).  They bury their chambers 4 feet.  Dig with a backhoe.
In their experience as well as Jack Barclay’s in San Jose, they build a lot of burrows and don’t do much maintenance.  The San Jose sites are on in the flat ground and mowed over the top.  The desert sites in AZ don’t usually require mowing. 
I brought up the fact (as others have) that the current practice of "passive" relocation (exclusion) is based on the premise that the owls will move to sites nearby, but there has been very little (if any) study of this.  Where are the owls going?  It’s also a major assumption that artificial burrows built for the owls that are excluded will be occupied by those owls.  Then there are those built miles away (or years after the fact).
I also raised the problem that comes from levee projects or other temporary disturbances that require the owls to be excluded.  Leads to driving all of the owls out of the area with no knowledge of where they are going.
All agreed that it is a major problem that so many of the owls (including most of the state pop in Imperial Valley) are living on levees or along water conveyance canals.
Friday and Saturday were the Salton Sea Bird Fest.  Good but depressing talks on the problems with the Salton Sea.  Reductions in allocations of Colorado River water may threaten (or reduce) ag in the Imperial Valley which could threaten (or reduce) the BUOWs.
Major problems for the Salton Sea.  It is an amazing place harboring literally millions of birds.  It has functioned as a replacement for the loss of the Colorado River delta (the river rarely reaches the Gulf of CA since there are so many urban and ag demands on it).
In the past, siltation in the delta would occasionally lead to the Salton Sink filling with Colorado River water.  The latest example of this was an accident on the All American Canal in 1905.  The Colorado River shifted into the canal, out of control, and filled the Sink.  The levels have been maintained over the decades by ag runoff.  This has allowed the Sea to persist, but has led to increasing concentrations of salts as the water evaporates and the salts, phosphates, and other constituents are left behind.
The water is saltier than the ocean.  If nothing is done, it will become a dead sea.  First, ALL of the fish will die.  Eventually, all the inverts will die, and it will be of no value to birds or other wildlife.  With cuts in water allocations (and, therefore, runoff to the Sea), this could happen as early as 2018.  A huge plan has been proposed (52 miles of levees) to create a ring of better water along the outside of the current sea, with a dead zone in the middle.  Also, with less water, there will be much exposed land.  The strong winds will put more particulate in the area, leading to already bad air quality to become much worse.  More at